Bridges: Ritter sang his way to long career as country music star

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Tex Ritter became one of country music’s most famous stars just as it was becoming known nationwide.  He became a beloved character in dozens of appearances in movies, radio, and TV and released dozens of hit songs.

He was born Woodward Maurice Ritter in January 1905 on his family’s farm near Murvaul in Panola County, just a few miles from the Louisiana state line.  When he was still young, the family moved to Beaumont where he attended school.

Bridges
Bridges

Along the way, music became an important part of his life.  He was an exceptional student, graduating with honors.  He enrolled at the University of Texas in 1922 with the aim of becoming a lawyer.  He excelled in political science and economics courses.

He began touring with a musical group around the country by the mid-1920s.  He briefly enrolled at Northwestern University Law School in Illinois before turning to a career in music.  By 1928, he had a regular program on Houston’s KPRC radio.  The show’s success inspired him to move to New York City, where he performed on Broadway.  He began singing and acting on radio stations on the East Coast by the early 1930s, including popular children’s programs.  His charm and gentle humor won him many fans over his long career.

In 1936, he was signed to a contract by Grand National Pictures and moved to California.  He appeared as “Tex” in the 1936 low-budget western "Song of the Gringo."  He was paid $2,400 for his role or more than $50,000 in modern dollars.  His roles were usually one of the singing cowboy along the dusty trails of the Old West.  He played a character named “Tex” in every one of his movies until 1942 and most of his films afterward until 1950.  He would continue to make $2,400 per picture until Grand National folded in 1939.  Ritter performed in more than two dozen movies between 1936 and 1940.

He performed the title song for his 1942 film "Deep in the Heart of Texas."  Gene Autry, himself a famous Texas singer, also recorded a popular version of the song that year.  In fact, five different versions of “Deep in the Heart of Texas” by different singers appeared on the country charts in 1942.

Ritter met his wife Dorothy Fay, an actress, while making some of his early films.  His wife would appear in 18 westerns between 1938 and 1941, sometimes appearing with him.  The couple would have two sons, Tom, born in 1947, and John, born in 1948, who would become a popular sitcom star by the 1970s.

During World War II, he continued to be a popular performer.  He continued to appear in movies and on radio.  In 1944 and 1945, he released some of the most popular songs in the country, including “I’m Wasting My Tears on You,” “Jealous Heart,” and “You Two-Timed Me One Time Too Often.”  His songs continued to be chart-toppers well into the 1950s.

In 1951, he sang the lead song for the classic Gary Cooper western "High Noon."  The song itself, “High Noon” or “Don’t Forsake Me” peaked at No. 12 on the country charts.  Ritter was invited to sing the now-famous title track for the first televised Academy Awards ceremony in 1952, where he won an Oscar for Best Song.

Ritter had another Top Five hit with “I Dreamed of a Hill-Billy Heaven” in 1961.  He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville in 1964.  By the 1960s, trends in country music began to change, and only two of his singles for the rest of the decade cracked the Top 40, most notably “Just Beyond the Moon” in 1967.  Nevertheless, his love of music continued; and he performed regularly on TV programs, including The Porter Wagoner Show and The Johnny Cash Show.  He also began working as a disk jockey on Nashville radio stations.

In 1970, he jumped into politics.  He ran for the U.S. Senate in Tennessee.  However, he lost the primary by a wide margin.  Some time after his ill-fated Senate run, he was asked on The Dick Cavett Show if the nickname “Tex” cost him the election in Tennessee.  Ritter quipped, “Well, Tennessee is the mother of Texas.  We have never discovered who the father was.”

Ritter would record four more albums in the early 1970s and make appearances on various TV and radio programs.  His last film appearance was in the 1973 "Sing a Country Song."

While visiting friends in Nashville over the New Year's holiday, he suffered a massive heart attack and died on January 2, 1974, just a few days shy of his 69th birthday.  His body was returned to Texas and was buried in Port Neches.  Ritter still had many fans after his passing and was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was among the first inductees in 1998 into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in Carthage, only a few miles from his birthplace. His songs continue to be featured on TV and in movies.

Ken Bridges is a writer, historian and native Texan. He holds a doctorate from the University of North Texas. Bridges can be reached by email at drkenbridges@gmail.com.

This article originally appeared on Lubbock Avalanche-Journal: Ken Bridges Tex Ritter sang way to long career as country music star